Relationships are hard. People are messy, unpredictable, and often selfish. When I was growing up as an adoptee, I always wondered who my birth mother was. I thought she must be this amazing woman who loved me so much and went on to do great things because she had a second chance. I never would have guessed that the first time I would meet my birth mother, I would have to walk through a metal detector, be assigned a dress code, and talk through a wall of glass.
My Birth Mother Experience
Yep, the first time I ever laid eyes on my birth mother was staring at her through the glass of county jail. If only the disappointment stopped there… but wait, there’s more! I learned about 24 hours after I unsealed my adoption records that my birth mother had been in and out of jail and prison for most of my life. She’s an addict, homeless most of the time, and a habitual criminal. I also learned of her infamy long before I ever met her.
When I was tracking down my birth family by using clues in my adoption record, I was volunteering at a homeless shelter-type non-profit that provided housing for certain clients. They remembered her from over five years before and said, “she is toxic. I don’t think you want to meet her. You’re better off not knowing her.” Pause- this person had NO RIGHT to say those things. Even if she felt that my birth mother was an awful person, it’s my story, and if I want to meet her or need that closure, that should be my choice, and I shouldn’t be influenced. Either way, that’s not fair to me. I’m a pretty strong-willed gal, so I basically thanked her for the feedback and said I had to move forward for closure’s sake, at the least.
So, I moved forward. Was I met with toxic behaviors and disappointment? You betcha, but I needed to figure things out on my terms. Cheryl, my birth mother, got out of jail and went to a halfway house. I kept up with her and visited a couple times, but it wasn’t long before she began her vicious cycle again and was back in jail. Not even going to lie, in the first three years of knowing her, she went to jail or was high for most of it. I even called her probation officer once to get her thrown back in jail because I at least knew she was off the drugs, fed, and safe there. Over the 11 years I have known her, I have watched her chronic illness bring her to death’s doorstep several times, I have seen addiction worsen to even harder drugs, I have seen my birth mother weigh 80 pounds, and I have also realized that every moment of disappointment has been worth it.
Cheryl is a lot of things, and I hate her choices. I hate that she did not do anything positive with her life after placing me for adoption. I hate that those drugs were more important to her than her family. More important to her than her three beautiful daughters, but addiction is a vicious beast, and it doesn’t discriminate or care what it leaves in its wake. My birth mother is an obvious testimony of someone numbing their pain and escaping reality. I understand her pain because I, too, have placed children for adoption. I know that choice was likely one of the hardest things she has ever done. I also see how she has not had any post-placement support from the agency she placed with, nor anyone else.
I have been fortunate enough to find Cheryl in sober and good days where we were able to talk about things that I wanted to know more about. I wanted to know more about her experience as a young woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy and what adoption looked like for her back then. To be honest, she sounded desperate and as if she knew there was no other option. I think in her mind, she felt forced. I was not there, so I don’t know if it was unethical, but I know that even from speaking with my grandparents, the agency promised things that were not true as far as post-placement. My birth mother made the only choice she thought she had and then had to move forward, not knowing if I would ever come looking for her again. I get her pain, and I understand why she never placed my biological sisters for adoption.
Over the years, my relationship with Cheryl has been full of twists and turns. I have grieved for her more than most emotions, screamed with fury at her many times, cried over the hurt and disappointment she has caused, and felt defeated that this had to be my story. It seems unfair. But despite all of that, I have learned that love is a choice. Does she deserve anything from me? No, but in the wise words of Tupac- “I am bigger than that.” She gave me a life that is without a doubt 1,000 percent better than the one I could have had being raised by her. I am so thankful that she mustered up the strength and selflessness to place me for adoption.
Our relationship is estranged now, but it’s healthy. I hear from her a few times a year, I keep my boundaries in place, I don’t let her manipulate me, and I remind her that I love her every moment I have her attention.
Despite it all, she has given me something so special, and I am thankful. I share all of this not to get your pity or to affirm that person telling you “don’t meet your birth parents because it never goes well,” but rather to tell you that disappointment isn’t the end and healthy relationships are possible with birth mothers even in the most extreme circumstances. Okay, well, almost the most extreme. (Ask me about my birth father, and you’ll think Cheryl is a cakewalk.)
I feel like this should be broken down into two types of adoptees. Closed adoption adoptees, like me, don’t have much to go off of when they find their birth family. It can often be pretty overwhelming and sometimes traumatic when you find out more about these people you’ve fantasized about meeting for years. There are many happy stories of people discovering their biological roots and having great reunions. There are some that meet, and it just doesn’t sparkle or shine the way they wanted, or there are some that just turn out to be disappointing and difficult to process.
If you’re at the precipice of meeting your biological mother, my first piece of advice is to go in with no expectations. You’re doing something incredibly brave and big by opening up to someone new that has such a huge role in your life today. I think that it’s okay to just let it unfold and for you to take it in bit by bit. If it’s amazing, you will process it and decide what the next steps look like. If it’s just okay, you will take what you can from it. If it sucks, you’ll unpack it and figure out how you need to tackle that.
My sister, who is also adopted, had a completely different experience than I did when she met her birth mother. Still, she tries her best to cultivate that relationship and find the positives in the things she can. We are all so unique, and my story, my sister’s story, your story, and the next adoptee’s story will all be as vastly different as the next person’s. It’s okay to expect nothing.
Once you’ve met your birth mother and you decide if they are a healthy person to begin a relationship with, start setting boundaries and clear expectations of what you need. Communicate how you’re feeling and if you’re comfortable with it, ask your birth mother the same things. Get on the same page before you get too far into the relationship.
Managing expectations is the best way to keep everyone from getting hurt or blindsided. Speak up if you feel pressured or rushed by your birth mother during the reunion. As a birth mother, I cannot fathom how hard it must be to wait 18 years or more, wondering if your child will ever come looking for you. And if they do, I cannot imagine the amount of patience and selflessness it would take to hand the reins over to your child and let them dictate how this is going to go. However, as a birth mother, I also know that the adoptee should be the one in control of the reunion. If they want to move forward, backward, in circles, or stop completely, that’s their right. You, as an adoptee, have the control here, and you get to decide what is healthy for you and your birth mother moving forward. I hope that whatever that looks like, that you find closure and peace.
For adoptees who grew up in open adoptions, like my kiddos have been able to do, things are a bit different. (Adoptive parents- this section is good for you too.) I am honestly very envious that open adoption wasn’t around when I was a child. It seems like it should be the only way adoptions move forward. Not only is it healthier for the adoptee, it’s healthier for the birth mother too.
Adoptees, while I have shared how my relationship with my birth mother has taken some serious effort and intentionality, my relationship as a birth mother to my children is effortless and full of joy. Don’t get me wrong, open adoption calls for a heavy dose of effort on all sides, but the return is far worth it. I see it every day in how my children interact with me; they don’t question my love for them or if I want to be in their lives. They just know they are my world.
Having some form of openness from the birth of a child and on allows a very natural relationship to form. Nothing is pressured or rushed; it’s a day-by-day process of everyone navigating what their roles look like moving forward.
Birth mothers are likely grieving or unsure of how to feel in the first few years, maybe more. Sometimes they don’t want to see their child on a regular basis because it hurts too much. Others—like me—want to be involved as much as the adoptive parents allow. Whatever situation you face will still be productive and hopefully a healthy relationship between birth mom and adoptee.
As the years go on, we all grow and gain wisdom, relationships bloom into more intimate ones, and people know one another more deeply. The possibility of adoptees interacting with birth mothers helps strengthen that bond and reaffirms what all birth mothers want their child to know–they are loved and have not been abandoned. This approach allows the “reunion time” of adult adoptees to be less traumatic, and they aren’t going to a stranger learning the “why” to their adoption story.
For those who are not adoptees, it may not seem like a huge deal to ease someone into their story versus them finding everything out in a moment, but it makes a tremendous difference. It impacts how the adoptee processes everything; it sets the tone for their relationship with their birth family from that day forward, and it is frankly overwhelming.
Regardless of how you grow up as an adoptee, navigating your relationship with your birth mother will take patience and hard work. Still, there is always hope when you push through something uncomfortable or scary and see what the future can bring. No matter what, I promise you one thing: you will be proud of the growth you achieve, the obstacles you overcome, and the strength it takes to be vulnerable enough to try.Are you considering adoption and want to give your child the best life possible? Let us help you find an adoptive family that you love. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.
Katie Reisor is an adoptee and birth mom who is passionate about adoption advocacy and breaking stigmas around birth parents. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and hanging out with her dog, Chloe.